A couple of interesting stories from the New York Times. I can’t get a blogsafe link for the first, so it may disappear in a few days:
Composing the Work an Ill-Fated Poet Never Began, by Alan Riding, describes a new book about (and by) Marina Tsvetayeva:

Now, in a new book published [in Paris], Tzvetan Todorov, a Bulgarian-born French philosopher and literary critic, believes he has found a way of introducing Tsvetayeva to a larger public outside Russia. In “Vivre Dans le Feu: Confessions” (Éditions Robert Laffont), or “Living in Fire: Confessions,” Mr. Todorov has organized extracts from nine volumes of her letters, notes and diaries into what he calls the autobiography she never wrote.

“When I first read the material in Russian, I thought it was amazing, but also a bit difficult to follow,” Mr. Todorov said in an interview, “because when you take all this writing, it’s not a finished work. So I decided to carry out a labor of love, to compose a book that Marina had already written so that anyone could read the confessions of one of the great writers of the past century.”

That’s a book I’d like to read. The other story is about the new breed of young, hip lexicographers: In Land of Lexicons, Having the Last Word, by Strawberry Saroyan (no, that’s not an April Fool’s joke, it’s her name). It focuses on Erin McKean, 33, editor in chief of the Oxford American Dictionary, but features others as well:

They include Steve Kleinedler, 38, who is second in command at American Heritage and has a phonetic vowel chart tattooed across his back; Grant Barrett, 34, project editor of The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, whom Ms. McKean describes as looking as if he’d just as soon fix a car as edit a dictionary; and Peter Sokolowski, 35, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster and a professional trumpet player. Jesse Sheidlower, 36, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is best known among the group so far, partly because he is also editor of “The F-Word,” a history of that vulgar term’s use in English. He is known for his bespoke English suits, too…

Sidney I. Landau, a former editor of Cambridge Dictionaries and the author of “Dictionaries: The Art And Craft of Lexicography” (and at 71, a member of an older generation), said a shift in people’s interests had also played a part. “In the early part of the 20th century, science and technology were very big in terms of marketing dictionaries, and they’d make claims about having 8,000 words dealing with electricity or mechanics,” he explained. But now, he added, “I think there has been a shift in terms of recognizing the importance of youth culture and slang.” In other words, people like Mr. Barrett, who marvels at a term like “ghetto pass,” which refers to street credibility for nonblacks, are in demand. He can trace its mainstream usage back to the hip-hop artist Ice Cube in 1991.
John Morse, the publisher and president of Merriam-Webster, said many young lexicographers had a natural social aptitude that helped them rise in the field. “I think if you go back 20 or 30 years, dictionary editors kind of sat in their office, did what they were supposed to do,” he said. “But what we realized – at least what I realized about 10 years ago – is that we needed to put a public face on dictionaries. Editors needed to be engaging with the public. And I think that activity is something younger editors stepped up to.” Ms. McKean often appears on public radio talking about words, and she has been dubbed “America’s lexicographical sweetheart” by National Public Radio’s program “Talk of the Nation.”

The whole article is interesting, and it’s always good to see Grant Barrett getting some press.


  1. It’s a shame they didn’t see fit to mention that Ms. McKean is also the editor of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly

  2. > “We occasionally take words out,” she said. “We thought they were working, and they just ended up not.” She cited the term “information superhighway,” which was removed from the new edition of the O.A.D., explaining, “People aren’t using it as much, and if they are, they’re using it in a jokey way.”
    Is it weird of me to think they should have left that in, and included a “now mostly used ironically” note (and maybe a tag telling their electronic formatting software not to include it in restricted-size editions)? The dictionaries I value most are the ones that include words and terms from the past as well as ones still in use.

  3. Well, it’s sort of borderline. If it were a word, I’d definitely agree with you, but it’s a phrase that was briefly popular, and there are zillions of such — if a dictionary tried to include them all, it would become unusable. Should “drug czar” be in the dictionary? “Pop goddess”? I think it’s an obvious enough metaphor that future investigators shouldn’t have too much trouble with it.

  4. I hope this isn’t another one of those Tsvetaeva biographies that concentrate on how great a victim she was of the world and how we should all mourn her unconditionally. None of the extant biographies offer sufficient condemnation of the cruelty she showed Efron through her endless adulteries and generally whitewash what was a very mean and spiteful woman.

  5. 1) Very few writers have spotless, or even generally admirable, characters.
    2) Tsvetaeva had a very tough row to hoe; if you’re sure you could have gone through what she did and come out unblemished, good for you. In particular, I think what Efron put her through, in terms of life-threatening activities, more than balances out her adulteries, if we’re counting.
    3) I’ve only seen a couple of biographies of her, but I didn’t get the impression they whitewashed her any more than is normal for biographies (those that don’t set out to destroy their subjects, that is).
    4) Since this is not a biograpy per se but a compilation of her own writings, it’s unlikely to be particularly objective, but it may not be a whitewash either. I don’t think Marina Ivanovna was under the impression she was perfect.

  6. And don’t forget her borderline criminal treatment of her children.

  7. Well, I guess when you put it that way, “information superhighway” will probably remain fairly easy to figure out — but to address one of your other examples I wouldn’t be at all surprised if our descendents were confused about why “drug lords” are pro-drug but “drug czars” are anti-…

  8. Changing the subject only slightly, a high proportion of the pre-WWI artists and writers seem to have lived absolutely unconventional lives — mostly dependent on charity or patronage, destitute at times, engaged in intense transient relationships, vaguely acknowledging their children, drifting from place to place. None of them ever seem to have held jobs, but few really lived by writing either.
    In today’s world I am somewhat on the unrespectable, louche side of the line, but looking at the lives of Mandelstam, Rilke, Satie, and many more, I feel like some kind of Presbyterian bank director. (Lest there be any doubt, file this communication under “envy”. I NEVER should have taken that 40-hr./week job in 1975. If there are any young folk out there, let my fate be a warning to you all.)
    Of course, we do have our own demimonde nowadays, but I don’t feel that it’s producing Rilkes and Mandelstams. Perhaps that shows a deficiency in taste on my part.
    BTW, Willis Barnestone’s biography of Rilke in his “Sonnets to Orpheus” translation is good, but the translations are terrible. Herter Norton’s translation is apparently not well-regarded, but if you know any German at all it’s the best crib by far that I’ve seen.
    BTW Herter Norton (f.) was a founder of Norton publishing, which was pretty adventurous before it started squeezing out enormous logs of textbooks.

  9. I share your envy — I sometimes wish I’d never moved to NYC, which pretty much forced me to take a 40-hr/wk job. Now I’ve left the city and regular employment, but I don’t seem to have the writing bug the way I did back in the day.
    As for Ms. Norton, according to this page her full name was Margaret D. Herter Norton; could Herter have been her maiden name? Or was it a middle name that she was generally known by? Google saith not.

  10. Her husband was Norton, so it was a maiden name. They were partners.

Speak Your Mind